This is one of those patently absurd statements that shouldn’t even have come close to being a part of strength training dogma. To keep your muscles from adapting, is to keep them from getting stronger (if we are talking about positive adaptations). When we achieve a new level of fitness, it is because of an adaptation to the imposed demands on our bodies. To seek to “block” this process is nonsense.
What the statement really means is to keep your muscles from “getting used to something” so that they stop adapting. This would make it seem like your elbow flexors somehow know the difference between different kinds of biceps curls and get bored and refuse to get stronger or grow. To explain this, the muscle confusion principle is usually invoked with a statement such as:
“Muscle confusion is the need to change your workout routine periodically to keep the body stimulated and growing. If you follow the same routine for several weeks, your body will adapt to it. You need to confuse the muscles, so they do not anticipate what your next workout will be.”
This principle was developed, the story goes, by Joe Weider. Developed is a fancy word for made up. Although it was based on ideas that were already extant, it is not clear whether he named it or just put his name behind something that was already being used. The idea that your muscles “anticipate” anything should not have really ever gained any ground. But it did. However, even if it were true, doing the same thing over and over is not something that most, if left to their own devices, would ever do. Most of us will try to ADD to what we’ve done before without having to be told. Adding to what you’ve done before has a fancy name: progressive overload. Using progressive overload is not doing the same thing over and over again. It is a wonder these two ideas can exist simultaneously and be equally accepted. In resistance exercise, that you should add sets, reps, weight, or even decrease rest between sets is already assumed! OR should be.
When you add weight, reps, or sets (or all three) to a particular exercise, there tends to come a time when you temporarily reach an inability to progress further. In resistance and strength training parlance, this is usually called a plateau. However, this is probably a misnomer as a plateau is when increases in training fail to deliver any additional performance rewards. It is better referred to as a stall. The difference between a plateau and a stall is important.
I will assume that the above is a confusing statement. If I am progressing, I am increasing performance, right? So if I can progress more and do more in my training, I should improve my performance more. No. This confusion underscores why we must be specific in just what performance improvements we are going for, and why strength training isn’t about the individual muscles in the body, but the body’s ability to exert maximum force in specific situations (configurations).
What is a Stall?
Let’s say you are training overhead (military) press. You start out with the ability, with moderate ease, to press 100lbs for 3 sets and 5 reps. Over a number of weeks or months, you painstakingly add reps, or sets, or weight to the bar, so that you end up being able to press 125lbs for 4 sets and 6 to 7 reps. Then you find you just cannot add to it anymore: You’ve stalled.
Many people will tell you that you stalled because your muscles adapted. They are defining adaptation as a muscle’s refusal to continue adapting! As you progressed in your press training, what were the adaptations that took place, given the parameters of your training? You know two things. You increased your maximum strength by 25lbs. And, you’ve increased your muscular endurance, as well. This is what you know. You can also theorize (though most assume) that you’ve increased your maximum pressing ability (your 1RM) somewhat beyond that 25lbs, and there are rep/set charts that will give you an estimate of this one rep maximum, based on the number of reps you can do with a certain weight (a rep maximum). This estimate will likely be incorrect, but since so many lifters never actually test their 1RM, the charts have a bit more power than they should be given.
Now, let’s say your usual response to a stall is to change exercises. Even though you really want to get stronger at overhead press, you switch to bench press because you’ve read that the bench press can help your overhead press. You do bench press for a while, then go back to overhead press. You play catch up, and then after a few weeks, you are progressing past where you left off. Conclusion? You were able to confuse your muscles by switching things up so that they were no longer “adapted” to the the overhead press.
Is this logical? Of course not! First, if your only response to a stall is to switch exercises, then you have very little other evidence as to how to get past a stall. And since you’ve never tried anything else, you cannot actually state with any confidence that your ability to progress again on the overhead press has anything to do with the switch. What if you had decided not to press at all for a while and then when you got back to pressing you were able to progress again? What would this mean? It could be that you just needed a rest, to let go of some build up of fatigue.
Also, what if you increased the time per session (increased the rest periods), and added weight (raised the intensity)? Would you then be able to increase performance? Are you confused again?
There are two ways to think of progression. We can progress in strength training, which means we add something to whatever we are doing. Or, we can progress in performance, which means we add weight to our 1RM. Sometimes these are the same things. Sometimes they are not. Most, however, assume that progression in training is always progression in performance. That depends entirely on what kind of performance you are expecting. And this is how a true plateau comes in.
What is a Plateau?
Looking at overhead press again, let’s say you start out with 4 sets of 6 reps and you start adding reps to the sets. Somehow, over a period of months, you increase the reps to 12 and you even add a set so that you can now press the same weight for 5 sets of 12. About halfway through this process, you test your 1RM and find you can lift five more pounds than the last time you tested. At the end of the process, given this fact, you expect that your 1RM continued increasing. You test it and find that you not only cannot get a new PR, you can’t even lift the previous 1RM amount. You continued to progress in your training, but you failed to increase performance. This is an actual plateau.
Let’s review. The first scenario outlined a stall and the second one outlined a plateau. So, a stall is a temporary halt in training progress. You fail to “add” to what you’ve done before. A plateau is not a halt in training progress, but a failure of that progress to cause an increase in your performance goal. Most important to realize is that once you’ve plateaued, no amount of additional progress in the chosen training parameters will make a difference to your 1RM.
How are these related? Why did we stall the first time but plateau the second time? Well, presumably, the weight used in the first scenario was a weight that was a good bit closer to maximum ability than the weight used in the second scenario. Weight lifting charts tell you that a certain percentage of maximum corresponds to a certain number of reps. In reality, different lifters can achieve a different number of reps with the same percentage of their maximum. This means that if you can only do six reps with around 80% of your maximum, another lifter may be able to do 7 reps with the same relative amount. If this lifter uses increases in reps and sets to progress, he will be training closer to his maximum ability. The various reasons this occurs can be very complex and interrelated, but when this lifter, who is training closer to his maximum ability with any number of “high” reps, tries to increase reps and sets, he tends to stall faster than a lifter who is further away from his maximum ability.
Yet, in both scenarios, the same common advice will be given, based on the “muscle confusion” principle, to switch exercises. Stalls are called plateaus and plateaus are called stalls, and they are both treated the same way. Do you recognize that the second scenario was a continual progression in training without a progression in performance? A point of diminishing returns was reached. And, in the second scenario, for purposes of illustration, I said that the 1RM was tested halfway through the training period. Most of us know, however, that most trainees would not have actually tested their 1RM halfway through, and, indeed, probably will not actually test their maximum at all or at least will do so very infrequently.
While you are progressing, you are adapting. When you stop progressing, it is not because your muscles crave variety but because you’ve reached a temporary cessation in your ability to positively adapt to the demands of the training. But I’ve also shown that you can continue to progress, or adapt, without that progression corresponding to an increase in performance.
So what should be the response to both scenarios, a stall or a plateau? If your goal really is to increase maximum strength as expressed in overhead press or whatever lift you choose, then the response should be to do whatever you can to continue to increase performance, not to continue to progress in training! You see what’s going on here? The goal was never to add reps and sets, etc. The goal was to add weight to the bar for your maximum lift. When you respond to a stall or a plateau by changing exercises so that you can continue to add reps and sets, you’ve forgotten your goal. And this goes for whatever kind of training you are doing, even if it is near-maximum training with singles, doubles, and triples.
The first thing to recognize is that you’re training blind. A good response to the stall or the plateau, then, would be to test your 1RM so that you know exactly how your training has affected performance at that time. Or, recognizing that your goal is to increase the ultimate load on the bar, you could change the parameters to something that allows you to increase that load. You can lower the reps for a while, for instance. Or, you could go back to the base volume using more weight than you started with and see if you could continue to progress from there. This is why in SDT training we always respond to a stall by going back to base volume with an increase in weight. While you cannot say that you have increased performance simply by adding reps and sets, ANYTIME you add weight to ANY rep maximum, you’ve increased performance at least by that much weight, if not a bit more.
This does not mean that switching exercises is always the wrong response, it just should not be the early go-to response. Continually hammering away at the same lift has it’s own drawbacks, training mundanity (boredom), being one of them. Also, no matter how careful we are about maintaining quality, and being conservative, as it becomes harder and harder to increase our maximum on a lift, we can tend to become more desperate and more outcome oriented, causing us to take unnecessary risks. As a matter of fact, we may have the opposite problem of unnecessary switching. We may get so hung up on a lift we just refuse to let it go for fear of losing the strength we’ve gained on it or having to play catch up. I’d go so far to say that when the thought of taking a break from a lift causes you to become a bit panicked or fearful, it’s a good time to take a break! But you do not need to worry! It is actually fairly simple, and easy, to maintain a lift while working on another one, and such maintenance will not always be needed.
Most of the muscle confusion stuff comes from the muscle building world, not the strength building one. What muscle building trainees see as a “stall” is the muscle’s cessation of growth. Regardless of whether there is anything to these ideas, there are many different choices that will work to add mass to a muscle, but there are always a relatively few options to add weight to a certain lift. All these ideas are so entangled that strength training has become a swampy quagmire.
Let’s look at another quote about that brings home the bodybuilding connection, by Myatt Murphy, Jeff Csatari in Testosterone Transformation:
“Once your muscles get used to an exercise routine, they begin to figure out how to do the same movements more efficiently. That may sound like a plus in theory, but it’s a problem if what you’re hoping for is more testosterone and better results.” 2
Well, doing a movement more efficiently, in strength training, IS a plus. That is what you are going for. More efficient movement means less wasted movement and more force focused on the implement you are trying to move. However, as you add more weight, or load to the body, the mechanics of movement change and the body must “continue learning” to perform the movement efficiently, assuming, of course, that you are monitoring the overall performance quality and keeping it within a certain standard. You cannot continue to get better at a certain movement, which is a lift, by continually switching to another lift whenever the going gets tough.
- Ryan, Rick. Dialed In: The Health and Fitness Program That Will Change Your Life. United States: Goldflex Publications, 2008.
- Murphy, Myatt. Testosterone Transformation: Lose Belly Fat, Build Muscle, and Boost Sexual Vitality. Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2012.